The Conversation

Responses and reverberations

The Killing Machines

In September, Mark Bowden explored the logistical and ethical challenges of U.S. drone policy. Commentary’s Max Boot wrote, “Much of the best and fairest treatment of the use of drones in the war on terror that I have read” comes from this article.

In his support of drones as a tool to fight terrorism, Mark Bowden stacks the deck for a war paradigm by parodying the law-enforcement approach. He claims that if law enforcement is pursued, “ground assaults may be the only acceptable tactic under international law. A criminal must be given the opportunity to surrender, and if he refuses, efforts must be made to arrest him.”

That confuses both the meaning of ground assaults—a military as opposed to a police tactic—and the restrictions on law enforcement under international law, which permits lethal force if necessary to meet an imminent threat to life (a standard that in narrow circumstances neither requires seeking surrender nor precludes the use of drones).

Whether the intensity of hostilities between the U.S. and al-Qaeda amounts to an armed conflict or law enforcement is a question of international law, not political preference. By adopting a war paradigm where the facts on the ground indicate otherwise, the U.S. claims unlawful license to conduct lethal attacks on those it considers enemy combatants without regard to the imminence of the threat they pose or the possibility of arrest and prosecution.

This expansive war paradigm could even be used to justify attacking “combatants” on the streets of New York, London, or Paris. Many countries would be eager to adopt this elastic notion of “war” to target their own declared “terrorists.”

Drones have many advantages over other weapons, and if properly deployed might even be more effective than alternatives at avoiding unjustified deaths. But those advantages dissipate if loose conceptions of war are used to justify deploying drones.

Kenneth Roth
Executive Director,
Human Rights Watch
New York, N.Y.

Mark Bowden cheats. He starts his article on drones with a scenario of their use on a genuine battlefield. If drones were used strictly on the battlefield, they would be just another new weapon. They trouble our consciences because they are used far off the battlefield. They kill suspected terrorists at dinner with their families, at cafés with their friends, in bed with their wives.

Let me turn the tables. It is hard to imagine al-Qaeda using drones against Americans in America, so I will posit something more realistic. Suppose al-Qaeda develops a corps of trained snipers. Some of the snipers are Europeans, so they can blend easily into American surroundings. These snipers then enter the U.S. by one subterfuge or another and kill top-level military and civilian officials in their homes, in restaurants, on golf courses, wherever they can find them.

What would be our reaction? We would regard the snipers as criminals, though the parallel to our drone warriors would be awkward. Much sophistry would be devoted to finding a distinction.

John Harllee Jr.
Washington, D.C.

“There is no moral justification for deliberately targeting civilians.” In that case, the nukings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki make the United States the biggest terrorist organization on the face of the Earth. And now we rain holy hell on Third World wedding parties. How noble of us.

Janet Williams comment

The problem with signature strikes (strikes conducted against individuals who “match a pre-identified ‘signature’ of behavior that the U.S. links to militant activity”) is that they open the door to a much higher incidence of civilian casualties—and this is where the danger lies. If the United States is choosing targets based on suspicious activity or proximity to other known terrorists, this falls short of the threshold for drone strikes set by the Obama administration, perpetuates a disastrous U.S. image, and serves to invigorate the ranks of those groups the United States aims to disable.

Beyond signature strikes, there is a more fundamental question that we should be asking—a question of overall strategy: Is the current drone program achieving our national-security objectives? It is not just civil libertarians and human-rights advocates who are sounding the alarm; a group of 30 foreign-policy experts sent a letter to President Obama in March 2013 calling for an end to the current drone strategy. Even senior retired members of the military, including General Stanley McChrystal, believe drone strikes are counterproductive because of the blowback they foment among the local population.

Targeted killings may eliminate key al-Qaeda leaders, but when civilians die along with them, these strikes ensure that a generation of Yemenis, Pakistanis, or Somalis will blame the U.S. for killing innocent community members, exacerbating America’s serious image problems abroad and creating a space for extremist ideology to take root.

Danya Greenfield
Excerpt from an online Atlantic debate

Bowden expresses a moralistic objection to the use of drones. I suppose he wants wars to be fought by the Marquess of Queensberry rules! “War is hell,” to quote General William Tecumseh Sherman. I thank God that we Americans have the edge technologically. Drone warfare saves lives: key bad guys can be surgically and precisely eliminated without putting boots on the ground, and without unnecessary bloodshed of other hostile personnel.

Ed Goldsmith
New York, N.Y.

The opaqueness surrounding the program, and the fact that strikes occur in remote areas of countries about which Americans care little, is corrosive to moral behavior. Ponder a reality in which information could be shared with all Americans—what if Obama was forced by Congress to share, after every lethal drone strike, a detailed summary of the evidence against the people killed, as well as photos of the dead innocents, and brief statements from their next of kin? Does anyone doubt that, with that kind of public accountability built into the system, the total number of innocents killed would be far less than it is now?

Transparency wouldn’t make every drone strike moral, but it would almost certainly cause national-security officials to make more-moral decisions about drone strikes. No surprise that the drop in civilian deaths by drone over the past two years coincided with more transparency from the Obama administration and international efforts to document deaths of civilians, including women and children.

Conor Friedersdorf
Excerpt from an online Atlantic debate

Mark Bowden replies:

Ed Goldsmith seems to not have understood that I agree with him.

If Kenneth Roth is right about the legitimacy of drone strikes under a law-enforcement model, then making the transition from war to police action ought to go smoothly. Indeed, no one will even notice—certainly not those targeted, who care little under which legal framework they are killed. The constraints on police are and ought to be much more stringent than those on soldiers at war, so my point stands: if the Obama administration pursues, as it has said it intends to, a transition to the law-enforcement model, the use of drones will become far more legally problematic. If we decide it is best to approach al-Qaeda targets with ground forces, we can expect the number of casualties to rise. Roth is free to consider war a “question of international law,” but in the real world, nations still decide for themselves, and jealously guard the prerogative. As for using drones to attack combatants on American soil, so many things would have to break down before that happened that I am not going to start losing sleep over it yet.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

How have stories changed in the age of social media? The minds behind House of Cards, This American Life, and The Moth discuss.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.


A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?


In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.


What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.


Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.


More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In